Ash Wednesday; Year A (March 9, 2011)

Lessons: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12 Psalm 51:1-17 (1) 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10 St. Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, you hate nothing you have made, and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent. Create in us new and honest hearts, so that, truly repenting of our sins, we may receive from you, the God of all mercy, full pardon and forgiveness through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

6.1 [Jesus said,] "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5 And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 19 Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

St. Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Out of Ashes

Years ago I heard the story of a town in some faraway land, where there was a large white wall. Whenever older Christians passed by that wall (at least Christians who were part of a liturgical church), they would make the sign of the cross on themselves. When younger people began to ask about this practice, they received a puzzling response: none of the older Christians knew why they were crossing themselves when they passed by that wall. As a matter of fact, a good number of them weren’t even aware that they were crossing themselves.

The church I serve, Saint Peter Lutheran, in the south-east suburbs of Denver, prides itself in being a liturgical church. We find that the liturgical tradition shapes our life together in ways that are very helpful. All of our Sunday morning Eucharistic services follow the historic four-fold pattern of Gathering, Word, Meal and Sending. We are careful and thoughtful about how we conduct ourselves as worship leaders. Our messages each week are based on texts provided by a three-year lectionary. We offer ashes on Ash Wednesday, absolution on Maundy Thursday, celebrate the Great Easter Vigil, and pull out all the stops for The Resurrection of Our Lord (Easter Sunday). In these very public ways we celebrate the grace and majesty of God, make witness to the faith that has been given to us, and invite the world around us to join in the song.

Yet there is a danger in being a liturgical church. It is easy, if we’re not careful and intentional, simply to do what we’ve done in the past, without thinking about what it means. When that starts to happen, believers may stand and sit at the proper times, they may make the correct liturgical action with their hands and arms, they may honor the habits and traditions of their elders… but it does them little good. The truth is, what matters is not what we do or how we do it. What matters is why we do it, and whether or not it makes a difference in our lives.

Jesus saw that in the religious people of his day. There were many hypocrites in the church back then. People who would stand tall in the temple; people who made a great show of following the tradition; people who were respected by their neighbors for their standing in the religious community. People who did all the right religious things. Yet many knew the truth: that even though these people knew the religious system well, they were living with cold and selfish hearts. The religious behaviors that they had adopted were ineffective in turning their hearts to God

And so he warned his followers: do not put your faith on display to impress others (because if you do, that’s the most you can hope will happen). Instead, when you give your offering; when you pray; when you fast, do so in a way that lets your heart be drawn closer to God. Then your faith will be your reward.

Oh, and that faraway wall: someone finally started to do some research, and discovered that on the white wall had once been a mural depicting the crucifixion of Jesus. It had long since been painted over. But those who year-after-year had crossed themselves every time they happened upon the wall had developed such an ingrained habit, that even once the image was gone, they continued the practice. Whether that is a sign of a liturgical action that had lost its meaning, or a sacred impulse that revealed a deep faith, is immaterial. By failing to interpret this discipline, those who had benefited from it were unable to pass it on to a new generation. It was a liturgical practice that had lost its meaning, and consequently, its power.

So the church calls us to the season of Lent, and Jesus reminds us of how important it is that we remember why we enter into these forty days. We do so in order that the treasures we store up may be the kind that moth and rust cannot consume, and thieves cannot break in and steal.

Good lent to you all. During these forty days, may you be drawn into the heart of God, and may the presence of Christ fill you, and empower you for faithfulness.


Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. Why does Jesus instruct his followers to practice their piety in secret?
  2. How does that relate to his advice in Matthew 5:16 (”...let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”)?
  3. What purpose does Lent serve in the church calendar?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. When have I participated in religious habits without being fully aware of why?
  2. When has a faith practice been meaningful to me, and drawn me closer to God?
  3. What will I do this year to let the season of Lent make a difference in my life and faith?